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We Don't Learn from Our Facebook Friends

Posted by Josh Rothman  January 11, 2012 03:14 PM

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One of the great things about our new, socially networked world is that it expands out tastes -- supposedly. In theory, seeing what our friends like should help us discover new music, movies, and books. In reality, it doesn't work that way: A new study from Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society shows that the opposite is true. According to the sociologists Kevin Lewis, Marco Gonzalez, and Jason Kaufman, our online friends' tastes don't have much of an effect on us; in fact, we might be using their tastes to figure out what not to like. ("Social selection and peer influence in an online social network" appears in this month's Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.)

Lewis, Gonzalez, and Kaufman tracked the public Facebook profiles of about 1,400 college students from a single, unnamed college for a four-year period. They found that, on the whole, friends weren't influenced by other friends' tastes. Tastes in music, movies, and films weren't especially "contagious." The exceptions were classical music and jazz: If you made friends with a classical music or jazz fan, you were more likely to start "liking" that sort of music, too -- probably, the researchers suggest, because having a taste for classical or jazz is a "high-status cultural signal."

The best part of the study has to do with students who liked alternative or indie music: Their tastes tended to diverge from the tastes of their friends over time. "Students whose friends list tastes in the 'indie/alt' music cluster are significantly likely to discard these tastes in the future—an instance of peer influence operating in the opposite direction" from what you'd normally predict. Indie kids can use Facebook to find out what's too popular, and then "symbolically distance themselves" from their too-mainstream peers. It's too bad there isn't a "Don't Like" button. [Via ReadWriteWeb.]

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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